Friday, January 23, 2009
The Color Ring
Tonight's movie: Ang Lee's Lust, Caution from 2007.
The story comes from a 50s novella by the late Chinese author Eileen Chang, and takes place in Hong Kong in the late 1930s and Shanghai a few years later. Hong Kong is under Japanese occupation, and the film follows a small group of Chinese college students who form a resistance cell. The students meet as members of a theatre troup whose fervor is stoked by several patriotic plays they produce, spurring them to make a more concrete contribution to their country's aims. Their plan as a resistance cell is to lure a Chinese official who is collaborating with the Japanese occupiers into a trap where they will assassinate him.
A beautiful young woman (Chinese actor Tang Wei) is enlisted to seduce the official (Hong Kong actor Tony Leung) as a means of separating him from his security. But the infiltration effort takes months and careful coordination to effect, with the young woman having to befriend the official's wife and become a regular house guest. The official is ruthless and powerful and very well protected, and the risks involved for everybody very quickly rise up into the red zone. The plan is complicated by the young woman's unanticipated sexual awakening at the hands of the older man. The story is really the young woman's story, and her naivety--and that of her young, ideological fellow group members--means that the sacrifices required of her are quite unforseen. And so the story takes her in a very short span from carefree teenager to a careworn adult who is playing with the highest possible stakes.
The all-Chinese (or all Chinese-speaking) cast is first rate, and Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain) gives fantastic direction. The film is beautiful to look at and has a taut inevitability like a guillotine blade falling in slow motion. There's a nice period look (the authenticity of which I cannot comment upon as the setting is so foreign), but the film is really driven by quite spectacular performances from the leading players. Tang Wei is particularly magnetic as a demure slip of a girl who, as it happens, has an iron core. She is in virtually every scene, and the strength of her performance carries the whole film. She plays beautifully off of Tony Leung's official, who seems her mirror-image: steely and inscrutable on the outside but with a soft center which only the young woman manages to reach. There is also an excellent performance from the leader of the student group (played by Taiwanese musical megastar Wang Lee-Hom) who is secretly in love with the woman but must follow his first allegiance to the mission.
The film is subtitled, and some of the lines flash past with such rapidity that I had to back up the DVD to catch them--obviously, this would have hampered the experience in the theater. But the broad strokes, and even much of the detail, are clear to the audience in context. There are several graphic, full-frontal-nudity sex scenes in the film, earning it an NC-17 rating here, and causing a number of edited releases in other parts of the world. The graphic nature of these scenes make it difficult to judge their tastefulness; I guess it depends on one's squeamishness about sex scenes. (I was watching at work, which required a bit of strategizing, as it's clearly NSFW material.) But there's nothing gratuitous about the scenes, and they are responsible for establishing the deep bond between the lead characters when there are relatively few lines to accomplish the job.
War, espionage, love and betrayal, subterfuge: the story has all the ingredients for a first-rate pot-boiler. It took me a few moments to settle into the film's vibe with the subtitles, but I was absolutely captivated by then. I'm planning to rewatch it again this weekend.